From a bare storytelling perspective, superhero comics are generally considered to be lousy at endings, mostly because they’re engineered not to end, so the clean and ruthlessly efficient way that E is for Extinction ties itself up is a rare perfect ending. If comics were gymnastics and a slight wobble or a rolled ankle on the final landing could mean the difference between the podium and dismal failure, then every breath that was held between the last page of the previous issue and the closing panel of this one can now be let out in a long sigh before the clapping begins.
But comics aren’t gymnastics or, well, like anything else when it comes to serial storytelling. Superhero comics and their endings, once we dislocate them from the commercial motives that go into their production, are better seen for how they mimic death and dying with far more fidelity than any actual fictional story can. Some titles and properties live long, fulfilled lives that never seen to end. Some end abruptly, taken before their time, which Omega Men nearly succumbed to before an eleventh hour reprieve delivered by Jim Lee himself. Others seem to have suffered congenital defects and were never expected to last long, while still more take an unexpected turn for the worse and become terminal.
So maybe E for Extinction has the worst kind of comic book ending for daring to be so complete. After all, the emotional hooks that these kind of comics rely on to sustain their success month after month function by denying exactly the kind of closure and completeness that E is for Extinction offers. For that reason, this could never be allowed to happen outside the liminal space that Secret Wars provides, which makes it one of the few truly great entries in the event that take full advantage of the freedom offered instead of trying to write towards an extension into an ongoing series. Burnham, Culver, Villalobos, and Herring leapt into the void, and yes, they stuck the landing.
The basic skeletal structure of the mini is Grant Morrison’s entire New X-Men run. It isn’t a condensed or abbreviated version of his time on the title, but a hyper-concentrated alternative take on it, which is why Ian Herring’s almost abrasive colors, which Villalobos credits for leveling him up artistically, are so central to the entire undertaking. They literally light the way, or did until this issue when Cassandra Nova steps into the fray, bringing stark black and white contrast with her since she is, after all, the embodiment of entropy.
What we discover is that Jean was in psychic contact with Charles when he shot himself, while Cassandra Nova was in his mind, and the resulting trauma tore her apart and lead to her being deposited in the phoenix egg along with both Xavier and Nova, who were effectively black and white in a tug of war over grey. With tongues firmly in cheek, Culver and Burnham found a way to sum up the classical Morrison dynamic of binary opposites struggling towards synthesis with a pun, and good for them, because it’s a great pun.
It makes sense now more than ever that Xavier would be reduced to the same kind of thought virus as Nova, which he describes as a “psychic ghost,” as everything is distilled down to its essence. The full realisation of why the previous attempts at synthesis, like Xorn and Magneto’s merging or the quickly interrupted joining of Emma Frost to the Cuckoos, ultimately failed. It was all part of that distilling down until the most basic expressions of the forces in play could face off as the field is systematically whittled down to Xavier bonded to Wolverine and Nova bonded to Jean as Phoenix. Life versus death, optimism versus pessimism, male versus female, id versus ego. “Look at the stare of the champion against the challenger, the irresistible force meeting the immovable object,” Gorilla Monsoon’s voice floats back to us through the ages.
It’s a dynamic previously communicated to us in the second issue by Xorn, who mused that “surrender is the answer” in his climactic encounter with Magneto, drawing on the Ultra Sphinx’s riddle “What happens when the immovable object meets the unstoppable force?” posed in All-Star Superman. What’s so thrilling about E is for Extinction pulling itself together so cleanly to achieve the ultimate synthesis, Xorn as the Phoenix, is that it’s a triumph whereas Morrison’s original run ended in what was effectively his surrender to the unbreakable cycle.
What’s particularly interesting about their choices is that Jean and Logan are the ultimate expression of all that is the endless cycle of death and rebirth that are the X-Men, which Culver and Burnham put the pin in by showing the couple that Beast consulted with in the first issue, talking about how they’re going to have a mutant child and that their baby name choices have come down to Logan and Jean. Another of the many, many interesting tidbits in how they align the forces each side represents in the final showdown is that Jean as Phoenix represents the fundamental destructive force and Logan, with his healing factor, represents life and creation in an inversion of the usual gender norms.
Elsewhere, AvX in particular, the phoenix force was constructed as a discrete cycle of creation and destruction all of it’s own, but what makes the X-Men one of the most enduring and powerful forces in fiction is that they’re a faith without orthodoxy. While E is for Extinction is, and I firmly believe that this can be said without fear of contradiction, the authoritative statement on the Morrisonian construction of the X-Men, that speaks to a specific subset of the fanbase. Most of the other X-Men based Secret Wars tie-ins, like X-Men 92 and Years of Future Past use Claremont as their basis, which is a perfectly reasonable choice. So while E is for Extinction is a monumental achievement for the Morrison faithful, it’s hard to gauge just how impactful it will be for the Claremont camp. Perhaps Grayson’s creative team of Tim Seeley, Tom King, Mikel Janin, and Jeromy Cox who are celebrating the first full year of their longform exploration of Morrison’s Batman legacy, are their truest contemporaries, the nWo to their Degeneration X.
When I reviewed the first issue, I made a fairly blasé statement that there’s a clear throughline from Moebius to Quitely and Quitely to Villalobos, but it’s a statement well worth elaborating on. There’s a fairly significant range of detail and abstraction within the work of all three artists, so the similarities aren’t universal to their work, but picking out examples that show a stylistic continuity illuminate the evolution of the medium and create a sense of legacy worth celebrating. Certainly the tendency towards figures with elongated proportions is apparent in all three artists, but it runs much deeper.
One of the easiest similarities between Moebius and Quitely to pinpoint is their careful use of hatching to imply volume and weight, which is apparent to a lesser degree in Villalobos’ art. They’ve also been seen to make similar uses of stippling, which I found most prominently in Villalobos’ art on the hand wraps in a drawing of C.M. Punk. Another element, which Villalobos has yet to explore, is how Moebius and Quitely’s figures frequently appear to be suspended in liquid or in a zero gravity environment rather than falling through space.
There are many other lessons and influences to be taken from close examination of Moebius’ work, like how Geoff Darrow and Farel Dalrymple use the wide open spaces common to his science fiction work in Shaolin Cowboy and Prophet respectively. That particular influence in Prophet comes as much from its writer, Brandon Graham, as it does Dalrymple directly. E is for Extinction co-writer Chris Burnham’s own art can at times mimic certain elements of Quitely and Villalobos’ styles, but he’s a much more slippery subject. To wit, his Batman Inc work at times dipped more towards Will Eisner or even Brian Bolland as major influences.
Who takes what from a given artist’s legacy is an absolutely fascinating subject in comic art. To make a really informed and honest decision to follow in another artist’s footsteps takes a great deal of time and effort in pinpointing what makes that particular artist’s style work and then deciding to carry it forward in your own way. The reverence Quitely has for Moebius is crystal clear in the parts of his work that evoke that influence, and the same can be said for what Villalobos has learned from Quitely. My father once chided me for overlooking Neil Young at a time when I was enamored with the Seattle grunge scene that birthed the likes of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. “I bet they all love Neil Young,” he said. They do, or did, as the case may be. That conversation happened within a couple years of Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder inducting Young into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although we weren’t aware of it at the time. So my exhortation to anyone who digs Villalobos is to explore Quitely and Moebius’ work. We’re in a golden age of comics, which makes it perhaps more important than ever to study the masters.
As dark as the history, and in some sense, the present of superhero comics are, they remain a vital artistic and storytelling tradition that are steeped in incredible legacies. When a story like E is for Extinction comes around that brings such a uniquely placed team together it serves to remind us that legacy and homage aren’t just more polite terms for plagiarism or conservatism. In fact, one of the miniseries’ greatest legacies may be that it offers a clear and engaging entry point into the symbolic structure of Grant Morrison’s major comics work from Kid Eternal and The Doom Patrol through to New X-Men and Batman. E is for Exegesis, one might say.
Written by Dennis Culver and Chris Burnham
Drawn by Ramon Villalobos with colors by Ian Herring
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.